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Ghost Recon Online: From pay-to-play to free-to-play [Interview]

10 Sep 2012  by   John Robertson
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Many a free-to-play game is – for better or worse – the offspring of an already established franchise. Command & Conquer: Tiberium Alliances, Age of Empires Online, Battlefield Heroes, F1 Online and, most recently, Ghost Recon Online.

The thinking is obvious: consumers already have the brand knowledge and, generally, a positive perspective of previous games in the franchise.

With this in mind, we spoke to Ghost Recon Online’s lead designer Jesse Knapp, about the power of an existing franchise, the appeal of free-to-play gaming and where the game goes from here.

Our full review of Ghost Recon Online can be found here.

IncGamers: From a developer perspective, what’s the appeal of free-to-play gaming?

Jesse Knapp: I think, for me at least, one of the most appealing aspects of working on a free to play game is the direct relationship with the gamer.  “Joe” is playing the game I’m working on, while I’m actively working on it.  I might play a game with him, listen to him in chat, or read his post on the forums and then go back to what I was doing.

But it sticks, something about “Joe’s” experience or feedback sticks with me and I keep thinking about it, investigating it, looking at the data.  There is another one too, when people ask about what you do you can tell them: Check it out, it won’t cost you anything!

IG: How much easier is it to release a game into this space that has already done the hard work of building a solid brand recognition?

JK: This is an interesting one, because when you are working with an established brand, it has certain memories, emotions for people who played it before.  When you are taking something that has that sort of emotional connection and then doing something different with it, taking it in a new direction, it can make some people uncomfortable.  All in all though, I think it’s been a blessing for us, people are interested to hear more, maybe people give us a shot who wouldn’t have otherwise.

IG: Ubisoft has a mixed reputation when it comes to its PC output, is Ghost Recon Online part of an attempt to change that?

JK: Ghost Recon Online is a PC game in its soul.  It’s been made by PC gamers, for PC gamers.  That’s not to say that we don’t play console games as well, but a lot of the team here, we play a lot of PC games, and a lot of free to play.  Every day we set out to make a game we can be proud of, that we are happy to tell our friends and family that we work on.  It’s not just about the game on PC though, it’s about all the other online service pieces that are part of GRO as well, like customer service, game masters, patching, etc.  We’re working hard to deliver that.

IG: From our experience so far, Ghost Recon Online is anything but a run ‘n’ gun shooter. Success seems to come from playing slowly and carefully, as in most Ghost Recon games. Was there a temptation to move away from that to try and attract a more casual audience?

JK: Well, not from within the team… From the beginning, we’ve been a Ghost Recon game.  While there are certainly changes we’ve made, new directions, there are some things that are core to Ghost Recon that we wouldn’t move away from.  There are a lot of things to the Ghost Recon DNA, but being tactical and fighting as a team, that is king.  We’re talking about the most elite SOG in the US military complex, these guys think before they act.

IG: The classes are very well defined and seem to have been designed so that one is a direct counter to the other. How difficult is it to balance that without the game feeling too rigid and predictable?

JK: In many ways the primary counter to each class is itself.  Take the Recon, say he’s using cloak, the only 100% guaranteed way to counter that is using the Oracle(and you still have to use it in the right place at the right time).  What this means, is that each player is faced with a choice every time he spawns: Do I use weapon type A or weapon type B?  Which of my devices should I use?  But what he’s really saying is: How am I going to play?  Up close and personal? Calm and tactical? Am I going to try to flank?  By being able to make these choices, but be limited as well (no changing class within a match) it really keeps things fresh and empowers you to make a difference as part of your team.

IG: When beginning the design process, what kind of minimum PC spec do you aim for? Has that initial aim changed through development?

JK: With a free to play game, we want as many people as possible to be able to play the game, competitively.  That means, from a design standpoint, we’ve always wanted to support as wide a range of hardware as possible.  Take laptops for instance, being able to play a game on your laptop just makes it so much more accessible.

That said, we’ve also had a goal of making a HD game, which has its own cost.  I won’t lie, we aren’t happy with where we are right now, in terms of the performance, of what machines can really run GRO well.  But that’s the beauty of being a live gaming service – we are working everyday to improve GRO.

IG: How difficult is it to balance the idea that anyone can be competitive without using real money, but also trying to get enough people to buy items with real money to support the game?

JK: This is certainly one of the bigger challenges for us on Ghost Recon Online.  We’ve only recently started selling items for real money, so we are still in the early stages, but have a strong focus here.  At a core though, our goal is to make a game that people enjoy and want to keep playing.  We hope that by doing so, our players will choose to purchase items with Ghost Coins.

IG: Are we at a point now where the public no longer read “free-to-play” as “pay-to-win”? Is that still a stigma that needs to be overcome?

JK: It’s certainly still a touchy subject in some populations.  There are a lot of different feelings from players about this.  I think it also varies by game, there are certainly some really good games out there that do not require you to pay to win and we like to think that GRO is in good company there.

IG: Is this kind of system viable on current-gen consoles?

JK: Free-to-play and micro-transactions provide a lot of accessibility and choice to gamers, and we’re already seeing good success stories from consoles games that utilize these models in their online modes. So we believe that there’s a bright future there.

IG: What are your plans for the future? New classes, game types, maps, weapons, perks, other? How many people are still working on the game?

JK: We’ve got big plans for the future.  At the moment, we have three core focuses: Building new features that will enhance the social competition and team play experiences in GRO (take clans for example), providing new content(we’ve got some new maps in the pipeline that we think our players will really enjoy), and working with the players of GRO to highlight, investigate, and solve the biggest issues effecting their core experience(we’ve been very focused on Matchmaking, Anti-Cheat, and Game Balance of late).

One of the most exciting things about working on a game like GRO is the potential, we’ve got about 100 people worldwide working on GRO and are dedicated to continuing to grow, improve, and refine GRO for years to come.

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